Freaked Out Freshmen

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Yes, they’re worried about seniors with paddle boards — in a sense.

As Speaker Pelosi right now meets with her caucus for the second time today and the third time this week as members try to come to consensus on a health care bill, here’s a story from this week’s dead tree edition on what has so many of her freshmen and sophomores balking at passing a bill – any bill – right now.

Any bill would be dangerous for freshman Frank Kratovil – even one moderate enough to draw some G.O.P. support in the Senate. Kratovil — who was famously hanged in effigy this summer — won his seat in large part due to the endorsement of his predecessor: Republican Wayne Gilchrest who represented Maryland’s First District for 18 years. Gilchrest was a moderate whose votes against the war in Iraq eventually led to a Club for Growth primary challenge that Gilchrest lost, despite his overwhelming popularity in the district (he won in 2004 with 76% and in 2006 with 67%). Many moderate Republicans, such as Bob Dempsey, 77, of Kennedyville, were turned off by ultra conservative views the GOP nominee, State Senator Andy Harris, who is running again. Kratovil’s votes for the stimulus and the global warming bill didn’t bother these moderates: Gilchrest was a ferocious environmentalist and Maryland already caps and trades carbon credits. But on health care they draw a bright line. “It’s not one bill— it’s combo of stimulus and climate and health care,” says Stu Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks congressional races. “It’s almost like three strikes and you’re out. These are the kinds of bills that Republicans are gong to use against Democrats: that they’re too liberal, big spenders, too close to Pelosi and Obama.”

Indeed, the GOP has already run commercials in Kratovil’s district along those lines. “The Obama/Pelosi plan would cut Medicare by $500 billion. Kratovil already votes with Pelosi 85% of the time, now what do you think he’ll do?” says the announcer in one ominous sounding TV ad.

And with some seniors in the district, that message seems to be sticking.“If he votes for [health care reform], I’m not voting for him any more I can tell you that right now,” snarls Dempsey, at a Chestertown Fire Department dinner on Saturday where Kratovil was speaking. Dempsey crossed the aisle to vote for Kratovil in 2008 but is convinced that health care reform would mean big changes in his Medicare, which he likes. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Dempsey says, adding that many of his friends and seniors in the area have similar concerns.

One solution some Democrats are eyeing is to wait for the Senate to act and, if the bill is agreeable enough to all sides, pass that version: an option that has the added benefit of quickly wrapping up the process as it would avoid months of negotiations as the House and Senate merge their two versions. That scenario, though, risks losing the Progressive Caucus as it’s unlikely that the final Senate bill will include a full public plan. I use the end of this quote in the dead tree version, but I think the full quote gives some good context: “A lot of Democrats came to me saying, ‘We need to get this done.’ In other words, regardless of the bill we need to support it. I said, ‘No that’s not right,’” Kratovil says. “Then I had folks on the right saying: ‘Don’t vote for anything.’ That’s also not right. I can’t support the House versions. But, in the end, I wouldn’t rule out some compromise with the Senate.”